If you are not a Democrat, or at least not a supporter of President Clinton, you could perhaps be excused for reveling in the political difficulties of the President and his party.
But if you are also a realist, even a Machiavellian strategist, you will find yourself deeply concerned about the following as yet unacknowledged fact: It is extremely unlikely that the GOP can regain the Presidency in 1996. Or, its chance to do so depends less on the missteps and bad policies of the Clinton administration, than it does on what Ross Perot does, and how well he does it.
Consider this sobering fact. Most estimates claim that the vast majority of those who voted for Ross Perot would have voted for the Republican nominee if Perot were not running. Although in public the Democratic Party claims to be worried about Perot, and their inability to woo Perot supporters, I believe that they privately acknowledge the fact that without Perot running in ’92, Clinton would not be President. It is to the Democrat’s advantage in 1996 if Perot were to run as an independent candidate again.
In short, Clinton got elected with only 43.3% of the national vote (as compared to Dukakis’ 45.6% in 1988) because of the votes, 19% nationwide, that Perot siphoned off from the GOP.
The Democratic Pollster Stanley B. Greenberg discovered that, as of July, three-quarters of those who voted for Perot in ’92 would do so again if he ran. This constancy is uncommon for those who vote for third party candidates. In the past, the supporters of third party candidates would quickly return to the other two parties after their defeat. Why has this happened, and what does it mean for the 1996 elections?
Greenberg found that Perot’s supporters are interested in more than the deficit or the debt. They are much more critical of Congress than any other voting block. They are not in favor of raising taxes, want serious spending cuts, and are much more against politics-as-usual that had been previously thought. This was more than a protest vote.
This means that if Clinton doesn’t change his policies and take on the Democratically controlled Congress (about as likely as a horse chestnut turning into a chestnut horse), there remain only two possibilities for Ross Perot in 1996.
First, Perot can run again as an independent, and is likely to get at least 20% of the votes. This would mean that he would reprise his role as spoiler for the GOP, since he would prevent them from getting more than about 40% of the vote nationwide; and he would allow the Democrats to set up, with relative ease this time, the electoral strategy that will give them enough states to win in the electoral college. Clinton would be reelected.
Second, Perot can run as a Republican in their primaries, and try to become the GOP nominee. This would be riskier for Perot; for even if he could win the GOP nomination, the Democrats would be able to target him more easily for well-aimed attacks than if he were an independent. Also, Perot would have to support other Republican candidates, which would surely make him look like an opportunist who had lost interest in causing a revolution in the system and had become another politics-as-usual candidate.
But before 1996 there is 1994. Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, claims that it is possible that Perot will ask his supporters to vote against all incumbents in the 1994 elections. Luntz claims that if only ten percent of his supporters heed his advice, Perot could take credit for defeating around 60 House members and anywhere from eight to ten Senators. Luntz says that “the day after the election, he would be the most powerful man in America. And it’s no risk to him; he’s still independent and unobligated to either party”.
If Perot took Luntz’s Machiavellian advice, he would continue to leave his options open, using his (presumed) success with the 1994 gambit to establish such credibility and authority in American politics that he could actually be elected President in 1996.
The only thing that could stop him then would be for the GOP to nominate a person who is no less anti-establishment, no less against the politics-as-usual than Perot seems to be. This would have to be an intelligent, articulate leader for a new politics, who is not carrying the political fat associated with current GOP stars. No blue bloods, unprincipled country clubbers, or those with electoral records need apply. Look toward Bill Bennett or Colin Powell.
The chaos looming on the political horizon is not caused by Perot. He is taking advantage of an opportunity. If the Republicans do not try to give shape to our confused times—even more radically and effectively than they did in 1980—they will not govern for decades to come, things will fall apart, and the center will not hold.
Peter W. Schramm is a Professor of Political Science at Ashland University and Associate Director at the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs.